History

When I was in training for my Peace Corps assignment in Bulgaria, we exercised our community involvement muscles by organizing a civic improvement event. We recruited kids from schools and orphanages, did pledge drives and bake sales, organized volunteers, and had a great time of it. We contracted with a local welding shop to make some sidewalk trashcans, got children into teams to paint them, bought paints and brushes, and had an art contest in the town square to decorate the cans and award prizes for the best designs. As part of our Bulgarian lessons concurrent with the project, we made posters to advertise the event and tried to come up with team names to suggest to the kids. Peace Painters, Paintbrush Friends… simple and corny phrases with words we could find in our ever-present English-Bulgarian dictionaries. The word we found for “Friends” was Drugari. (‘dro͞o·gə·rē).

Our Bulgarian language teacher frowned and said, no! That wasn’t appropriate, not at all. What, the word “friends” is not OK? We were steered to a synonym, Priyateli, and told that was a nicer word. “We just don’t use that old word much anymore,” she said. We persisted: why was her reaction so negative? A little reluctantly she explained that was what Communist Party members called each other before the old government fell. Comrade! That was the word for Comrade. The word, swept up in the tumult of history. had been spoiled.

History turns things around. In a book I’m reading, Margaret Mitchell & John Marsh: The Love Story Behind Gone With the Wind, I read how the young author was imbued from childhood with her Georgia history in the early twentieth century. She recalled long summer evenings with her extended family, hearing stories of hardships and triumphs down through the generations from back as far as the earliest days of English colonial life, up through the terrible war which was then still smoldering hot in the memory of her elders.

“None was a more powerful storyteller than Grandmother Annie, who told Peggy endless tales about the Civil War, bloodthirsty Yankees, freed slaves, scoundrelly scalawags, cheating carpetbaggers, and the importance of behaving well in the face of either defeat or prosperity.”

Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone With the Wind was made into a movie, epic in its scope and grandeur and immensely popular since 1939 for showing the tragedy wrought by the Civil War. History. Like The Wizard of Oz, it is an early Hollywood classic that has endured to a robust old age while lesser works of film art faded and died. The film has been shown in Memphis’ historic Orpheum Theatre as part of a summer film festival for 34 years. No more. It offends. Canceled. Things change.

I recently read and shared (on Facebook, if you must know) an interview by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on the subject of Confederate monuments. Confederate. That’s another word that has changed, like drugari. She took the position that the monuments were a part of history, should be given appropriate context and not be torn down. With Charlottesville fresh in the news, I rather thought it would be an opportunity to examine a different view than what most of my friends are exposed to in their (our) own silos and echo chambers.

By Hal Jespersen at en.wikipedia (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

By way of background for why the topic was of such interest to me, I grew up in Richmond, Virginia (google “Monument Avenue“). What I knew about Robert E. Lee and the other Confederate figures was informed by the perception that they were bound by a sense of duty and honor, and took up arms to defend their beloved home states (never mind who fired the first shots). On my walk from the bus stop to my high school, I passed the Confederate Widows’ Home and would wave to the little old ladies sitting on the veranda in their rocking chairs. They would wave back and smile. In my basic training for the United States Air Force, after leaving my home state behind, I was required to memorize, among other things, “Lee’s Quote.” It was, “Duty then is the sublimest word in the English language. You should do your duty in all things. You can never do more. You should never wish to do less.”

It is hard now to understand the depth and passion of that feeling of loyalty and duty to one’s home state, rather than to all of the states together, but that was 1861. Things were different. Then once the war started, it could only be governed by the relentless, inexorable logic that war brings to itself. I concluded my sharing of the Rice interview with a quote from a thoughtful reader of the Dallas Morning News, saying that “We cannot change history by removing statues and renaming schools…. We can change the present by stressing positive concerns, such as equal educational opportunities, equal job opportunities and equal respect for the opinions of others.”

I took a solid drubbing in the ensuing discussion. The points did not turn on duty and honor, but on traitors, treachery, and comparisons to Hitler. The most insightful comment in the discussion, the one that got my reasoned attention, was from my friend Ivan. He wrote that he thought my argument was focused too narrowly.

“The issue is not the monuments as reminders of history, the issue is that they are part of the broader effort, to maintain racism, and even restore racist policies. The white supremacy groups wanted to preserve the monument because it enhanced their views, not because they appreciated the historical value.”

My initial reaction had been that the momentum seems to be on the side of the monument-destroyers, and I thought it was a damn shame. The exchange made me think, and read, and think some more. I was aided in this by another friend, Laura, who put me onto a set of videos that exposed a sore point: my view had been shaped within the confines of a privileged position that I seldom, if ever, even perceived let alone understood what advantages it had given me.1 And finally, this article was most instructive in my eventual conversion. The Myth of the Kindly General Lee.

I have changed my view. The big bronze statues along stately Monument Avenue have long been a subject of contention, and now I can see what must have been obvious to others for a long time.2 Sadly for some and triumphantly for others, the tide is flowing and it will take them away. As the saying goes, take it as you will, “They’re history.”

As a native Virginian, I hold a tinge of regret for their passing. I have released the bitterness of thinking “It’s a damn shame,” but a faint scar of regret will remain. The regret is for illusions lost, and it is overshadowed by being on firmer ground, but it is regret all the same.

Moments

It’s been a big couple of weeks for changes and challenges here in the States. I’ve spent some time reassuring some old friends that their marriages are still valid, despite what the Supremes said, and we don’t all have to marry same-sex partners if we don’t want to. And as for that other Supreme Court thing about Obamacare (liberally construing the meaning of the word “state”), well, fans of the Moops will be pretty upset for a while. With each of these, I have as many friends who were ecstatic as those who were furious. On top of all that, violence continues unabated here and abroad; terrible murders and we’re divided about flags, guns and history itself. Overseas, ISIS surges with vicious intensity challenging our church-thoughts of loving our neighbor, and Ukraine struggles in bloody spasms as if being slowly swallowed by a giant bear.

Greeks chanting slogans

A choir? People imitating baby birds waiting to be fed? No, neither one. Greeks chant slogans during an anti-austerity rally in Athens, June 2015.

Our colorful, elderly but fun-loving old friend Greece is headed for yet another tottering run at a financial cliff. (Photo credit: mashable.com, 5 things you need to know about Greece’s financial meltdown) I think of the situation there in connection with neighboring Bulgaria, where as we know the people have learned over the ages to live with very little. Even now, since joining the EU in 2007, Bulgarians live a mostly self-sustaining, frugal and spare lifestyle, working hard, helping friends, and wasting little. My friend Joe Herr pointed out an article that says it well: Greece’s Troubles Attract Little Sympathy From Poorer Neighbors. Most Bulgarians look at the levels of pensions and government benefits, for example, and think, “Hey, you’re complaining? Are you kidding, you want us to bail you out? Suck it up, Greece!”

Campfire sparks and stars

Watching campfire sparks melt into the stars.
Photo: Jason McDonald

But it’s summer! School’s out! I remember the feeling of absolute freedom in the first days of summer vacation, feeling that I could jump and run and almost really fly. Or playing tag and hide-and-seek until dark with my brother and cousins and the beads of sweat in the humid night starting to cool around my neck and on flushed cheeks and I could glory in the whisper of an evening breeze, slowing. Quiet murmurs and wows with friends looking at stars, or sometimes on a cool night watching flying embers and ash sparks from a campfire swirl up to join the sparkling diamonds in the black brilliant sky. Sometimes I think these are the things that matter more than what’s in the news, and sometimes I’m not sure.

Moments.

What else do we have? Straining, sometimes, to feed and clothe and protect our families and ourselves it can be hard to keep a sense of perspective on what’s important. In the abstract, of course, if we can recognize and treasure enough good moments that would make a good life. I can say with more irony than understatement, there’s probably more to it than that. Still, to recognize and be grateful for the precious moments in our lives is a blessing.

Let me tell you about one of those, one of the moments that I keep in a special place. It was while I was teaching an English literature class in Bulgaria, and there was a student who hardly ever said a word…

One Golden Moment

There was one golden moment I remember.
        Not the only one
                but it was one.

She sat, petrified,
struggling to find the answer hiding in the fragile English part
of her mind.

Even the sound of her classmates
        whispering whispering answers
would not bring it out.

The room whish-whished with bee-buzzing answers swarming, swirling, reckless.
        “Because he had money!”
                “He was a lawyer.”
                        “He let Scout do what she wanted!”

Shush. Let her tell me. She wants to tell me.
I’m squatted down next to the tired creaking scarred high-school desk,
a feat for old bones but this needs to be
                                                                       eye to eye.

“It’s just me here. Tell me.”
She faltered, blushing, looking away, looking at the floor.
Her English words
        cowered
                and mutely shivered
and would not move.

Her strong confident Bulgarian mind was yelling silently,
“Leave me alone! Ask the others!! They’re dying to tell you!”

As if to wish me away she looked up, still afraid but now eye to eye.

“You can tell me. Just me.”

“He was a good man. Atticus was a good father because he was a good man.”

One golden moment I remember.
        Not the only one
                but it was one.

Heavenly Thoughts

The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven: A Remarkable Account of Miracles, Angels, and Life Beyond This World

I read Heaven Is for Real, the book that’s sometimes confused with the one pictured here, for a book club. Then I found The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven and read it too, to add to the book club discussion. I finished it the day before the meeting, which was the same day the publisher announced that it was all made up. The young boy had admitted he just liked the attention, and his dad/co-author Kevin Malarkey “elaborated” on his son’s stories of shining and brilliantly colored scenery and beings, with fluffy clouds and feathers and gold all around. The boy and his mom, regretting the deception, had been trying to recant for a long time. No one would listen. People who had invested their belief into it didn’t want to give that up. Finally, probably fearing legal action with a made-up story being sold as true, the publisher issued a statement that they had been hoodwinked and recalled the book.

Sigh of relief. Maybe, just maybe, fewer people will be taken in by the perpetuation of this kind of myth and fantasy. The boy in the other book, Heaven Is for Real (recently made into a movie) is sticking to his story. For those who want to believe the currently popular mythological view of heaven (not that there’s anything wrong with that) Heaven Is for Real holds together a lot better. The dad/co-author (Todd Burpo) goes to some lengths to show that his son, as the heaven visitor, was not guided by leading questions. But this one, The Boy Who Came Back From Heaven — pfft! Dare I say it? (Even though it’s hardly original, how can I resist?) Malarkey!

Stormy and I have experienced a run of deaths near us lately. A dear neighbor from our California days, then in quick succession a fellow chorister we were close with, a book club member whose love we shared, an elder cousin of mine, and a close church friend of Stormy’s all within a week. That long week was within the near shadow of the passing of Stormy’s dad and all the adjustments and changes the family is going through from that. People we know comfort each other by speaking of being “in a better place” and the thought that the departed will greet their loved ones and that we will see them again too.

I do like the thought of a heaven — who doesn’t, one way or another? I like the thought that it is all around us but some limitation prevents us from seeing it. Perhaps I should say prevents our bodies from seeing it. Theologies have been built, wars fought, and lives dedicated or squandered, all on speculating about how that limitation can or will be overcome. If physicists and cosmologists deal in string theory to conceive of parallel universes or a multiverse, and if there may be something to out-of-body or past life experiences — even if those are all within the mind of the believer (is there anything that is not thus?) — the idea of another existence constructed in other dimensions isn’t far removed. It could be true. It could be here.

I recall a favorite moment on a bright spring day, in our adopted “hometown” of Panagyurishte, Bulgaria, in the little courtyard of a café.

Resting quietly there with friends, listening to the birds and with all the trees in their new spring clothes, I remarked that it was like a little bit of paradise. Krassi told us the story of how the Bulgarians got their land…

When God made the world, He made places for all the people, or at least He meant to. The Bulgarians tugged at His sleeve and asked, “Did You forget us?” God actually had overlooked the Bulgarians but did not want to admit it, so He gave them a piece of heaven He had been saving for Himself, and said it had been made for them.

Breeze, p. 168

Thinking that heaven is all around us, right where we are, doesn’t preclude there being what is called in eulogies a “greater yet-to-be.” Some believe it’s where we came from, and the state to which we will return. Some believe it’s a process repeating over and over, to infinity. Eternity. The idea that I am not a body that has a soul, but a soul that has a body, turns the question upside down and places my existence in that higher context. The Christian Bible asserts that “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.” (1 Cor 2:9) That doesn’t tell us where that place (calling it a place for convenience, bear with me) might be. I believe, though, that we are a part of it, and that no one can tell us about it.

When we get the slightest glimpse of it, like on a bright spring day with a good friend in the sun-dappled cool courtyard of a café, or on a mountaintop, or hearing a loved one breathe, it is a memory worth holding.


The first bit of this post is from a book review. If it interests you, I have more book reviews. Books with reviews are annotated “with text.”